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Soldiers, workers bid fareweell to Fort Ritchie

October 01, 1998

Fort RichieBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




FORT RITCHIE - There were tears and hugs here Wednesday as the flag was lowered for the last time and the 47-year-old Army post closed.

About 75 people gathered in front of "the Castle," which has served as the headquarters at Fort Ritchie, to take pictures of the historic occasion.

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"We are sad at this closing. We are turning this place over to a community that's been so wonderful to us," said Lt. Col. Francis Clepper Jr., the last commander at Fort Ritchie.

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As a bugler played "To the Colors" and "Retreat," six soldiers slowly lowered the flag and folded it into the customary triangle.

Some people stood with their hands over their hearts. Soldiers saluted.

The open parade field, surrounded by mountains, was so quiet you could hear crickets chirping.

Then, as a recording of "Auld Lang Syne" played, Clepper presented the folded flag to a surprised Edward T. Shimanski, the colonel's executive assistant, who retired Wednesday.

"It's unbelievable to have the last flag that has flown over Fort Ritchie," Shimanski said.

Shimanski said the flag represents to him his entire Army career - 36 years.

Unlike most military retirees, Shimanski and others who left Fort Ritchie on Wednesday won't be able to return to their former posts for lunches and holiday parties.

They watched as their offices were dismantled for the closing. In Shimanski's office, only a chair and phone remained.

"All of a sudden it seems like it's all gone. This is the end," said Elizabeth Aponte, who marked her last day at the post's Child Development Center.

Aponte, 31, will continue to live at the post with her husband, a soldier stationed at nearby Site R, known as the underground Pentagon.

Shannon Raines, assistant director at the Child Development Center, taped a sign to her back that said, "I need a job."

Longtime co-workers hugged each other goodbye. Some lingered on the parade field after the ceremony.

Clepper handed out his remaining artist's prints of "the Castle" and autographed several of them.

Annie Arnett, who retired Wednesday, said she will take with her many wonderful memories of her 24 years at Fort Ritchie.

"It was a wonderful place to work. They only sent nice people to Fort Ritchie," said Arnett, 67, who said she would have kept working as a secretary if not for the closing.

"It's a very sad day for a lot of people," said Maryland Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, who was the only elected official to attend the ceremony, which had been advertised only by word-of-mouth.

But Donoghue said Wednesday also marks the start of progress.

A nonprofit development corporation is working to convert the 368-acre post into the Lakeside Corporate Center at PenMar.

Eventually, 2,000 people are to be employed there in what officials hope will be in the fields of telecommunications, biotechnology and federal government contracting.

At one time, Fort Ritchie employed 3,400 people both civilian and military. About 7,000 military retirees in the area used services at Fort Ritchie.

In 1995, the Base Closure and Realignment Commission voted to close Fort Ritchie as part of military downsizing.

The land has had a military use since 1926, when the Maryland National Guard opened a summer training camp there.

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